DENVER (AP) — A dazzling defense rendered the Denver Broncos’ quarterback question a moot point last year. The Super Bowl champs are counting on that being the case again this season.
The six-month saga over who will guide Denver’s title defense came down to Mark Sanchez losing his grip on both the ball and the job when he fumbled twice inside the San Francisco 15-yard line on Aug. 20. Rookie Paxton Lynch might be the franchise’s future, but the present belongs to Trevor Siemian.
The seventh-round pick out of Northwestern in 2015 has made the startling jump from No. 3 QB to starter thanks to a confluence of events, including a retirement, a rebuff and a reboot.
While Lynch was showing more promise than proficiency, Siemian displayed poise, power and precision.
That’s not surprising given that Siemian had a bird’s-eye view of the Broncos’ quarterback conundrum last year when coach Gary Kubiak began every Monday meeting after mid-November with an announcement whether Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler would start.
The Broncos made it work thanks to a spectacular supporting cast that also makes them the favorite to win their sixth straight AFC West crown, although Oakland and Kansas City are closing that gap.
The Raiders and Chiefs both beat the Broncos in Denver last year, and it took Manning’s Willis Reed moment to keep the San Diego Chargers from doing the same.
Manning retired a month after Denver’s parade and Osweiler bolted 48 hours later to the Houston Texans. GM John Elway was rebuffed in his attempt to get Colin Kaepernick, so it came down to a three-way QB competition. Now, the Broncos go into the NFL kickoff game against Carolina on Sept. 8 with two quarterbacks who have never thrown a pass that counts in the NFL.
That’s not exactly a recipe for another run, but the Broncos always seem to navigate their way through adversity.
DOMINANT DENVER: The Broncos lost DE Malik Jackson and MLB Danny Trevathan to free agency, not really lamentable departures. They’ve had injury issues along the line, but they’re still loaded with pass rushers Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett, plus MLB Brandon Marshall and DBs Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby, Aqib Talib, Kayvon Webster, T.J. Ward and Darrian Stewart.
Miller parlayed his Super Bowl MVP performance into a jet-lagged offseason that included 61 flights and 47 television appearances. Oh, and a record six-year, $114.5 million deal with $70 million in guarantees. He’s looked terrific in limited action this summer.
The retooled offense features four new starters on the line, a bona fide fullback and a new tight end group. Denver has co-stars at wide receiver in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, who is bent on putting last year’s drops and drama behind him.
RISING RAIDERS: The future of the team in Oakland remains as foggy as an autumn morning in the Bay Area. Still, the Raiders have legitimate hopes of contending for the playoffs for the first time in years.
They rebuilt the defense, signing CB Sean Smith, LB Bruce Irvin and S Reggie Nelson, drafting S Karl Joseph and DL Jihad Ward. Those five team with All-Pro Khalil Mack on what should be a much-improved unit.
Offense all comes down to whether Derek Carr takes another step forward. After playing very well in the first half last season, Carr struggled in the second half, in part because of injuries to WR Amari Cooper and C Rodney Hudson. Oakland hopes signing G Kelechi Osemele fortifies the line and leads to a more consistent running game.
CHAMPING CHIEFS: Kansas City LB Justin Houston is out for now after surgery to repair a “non-functioning ACL” in February. The Chiefs also took a cautious approach with LB Tamba Hali after surgery on his balky knees, and RB Jamaal Charles, who had his right ACL repaired last season.
With injury issues a concern, the Chiefs also feel they have more talent across the board than at any point under GM John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid. Charles and RBs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware form a potent three-headed monster, and Jeremy Maclin and TE Travis Kelce give Alex Smith decent pass catchers.
The defense was great last season but is a year older, with concerns about the pass rush and in the secondary, where SS Eric Berry didn’t report until Sunday.
RECHARGED CHARGERS: Joey Bosa went public with his contract dispute. While the front office ripped Bosa, coach Mike McCoy seemed to support the former Ohio State defensive end selected third overall in the draft. He said whenever Bosa shows up, “he is one of us.”
The Chargers, 4-12 last season, missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, and could really use Bosa. Their D-line lost Sean Lissemore to a season-ending shoulder injury in training camp and Damion Square to a four-game suspension to start the season.
On offense, Melvin Gordon is trying to bounce back from his nightmarish season.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Broncos, Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers.
By Arnie Stapleton, AP Pro Football Writer with contributions from Dave Skretta, Josh Dubow and Bernie Wilson.
(© Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)